Say what you will about the recession and the global economy, but we've seen some absolute bargains in the PC hardware market these past few monthsand that trend only seems to be accelerating.
A large part of that has to do with competition. AMD's new Phenom II processors are on equal footing with Intel's mid-range offerings, which has led to bargains in that part of the market. On the GPU front, Nvidia and AMD are engaged in an aggressive tug of war with practically equivalent products and successive waves of price cuts. On top of that, shrunken global demand and oversupply have caused memory prices to plummet.
The result of this perfect storm is visible in our Utility Player system, which we've managed to bring under $700, despite including a fast triple-core Phenom II, a GeForce GTX 260 reloaded, four gigs of RAM, and an accompaniment of quality parts. That's as good a gaming system as most folks need right now. For those who want a little extra, our base Core i7 config is now cheaper than ever at just over $1,300, partly thanks to sub-$100 6GB DDR3-1600 memory kits.
Rules and regulations
The first thing you should know about this guide is that it's geared toward helping you select the parts for a home-built PC. If you're new to building your own systems and want a little extra help, our tutorial on how to build your own PC is a great place to start and a helpful complement to this guide.
Before tackling our recommended systems, we should explain some of the rules and guidelines we used to select components. The guiding philosophy behind our choices was to seek the best bang for the buck. That means we avoided recommending super-cheap parts that are barely capable of performing their jobs, just as we generally avoided breathtakingly expensive products that carry a hefty price premium for features or performance you probably don't need. Instead, we looked to that mythical "sweet spot" where price and performance meet up in a pleasant, harmonic convergence. We also sought balance within each system configuration, choosing components that make sense together, so that a fast processor won't be bottlenecked by a skimpy graphics card or too little system memory, for instance. The end result, we hope, is a series of balanced systems that offer decent performance as configured and provide ample room for future expandability.
We confined our selections to components that are currently available online. Paper launches and preorders don't count, for obvious reasons. We also tried to stick to $500, $800 and $1200 budgets for our three cheapest desktop systems. Those budgets are loose guidelines rather than hard limits, to allow us some wiggle room for deals that may stretch the budget a little but are too good to resist.
We've continued our tradition of basing the guide's component prices on listings at Newegg. We've found that sourcing prices from one large reseller allows us to maintain a more realistic sense of street prices than price search engine listings, which are sometimes artificially low. In the few cases where Newegg doesn't have an item in stock, we'll fall back to our trusty price search engine rather than limit our options.
Finally, price wasn't the top factor in our component choices. Our own experiences with individual components weighed heavily on our decisions, and we've provided links to our own reviews of many of the products we're recommending. We've also tried to confine our selections to name-brand rather than generic products, and to manufacturers with solid reputations for reliability. Warranty coverage was an important consideration, as well.